Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Conspiracy theories, superstitions, and our sense of control

If you think these are bad luck, maybe you don't feel like you have control over your circumstances

If you think these are bad luck, maybe you don't feel that you have much control over your circumstances.

According to recently released research, if you feel that events around you are random and out of your control you are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and superstitions.

The scientists say that people who feel that things are beyond their control can fall prey to “illusory pattern perception,” they see “a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli.” So, yeah, as the Newsweek reporter writes, they “see things that aren’t there, falling victim to conspiracy theories and developing superstitions.”

It seems that our minds revolt against the idea that circumstances that effect us are entirely beyond our control, even when they really are random, as they sometimes are.  “The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics,” said one of the researchers. “Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening.”

The human mind prefers to believe that mysterious, invisible forces are secretly at work rather than that the world is random. Whitson put it this way: “People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances. This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order, even imaginary order.” Feel free to apply this to current events, starting with the conspiracy that people imagine in the proposed financial bailout.

Please do check out the article in question; it describes several different experiments which  demonstrate this effect under a variety of conditions.

Quite independently of finding the above article, I stumbled across an interesting video from British mentalist and showman Derren Brown dealing with superstitions and how they form.  Like all of his work, it’s thought-provoking and entertaining television.  Check it out. (The intro is about 80 seconds, if you want to skip it; total length 9:59.)

How many of us would have done better than those folks?  Statistically, probably not many.  I was impressed, however, with David Tennant, who, incidentally, currently plays the title role on the Doctor Who program.  Even with all the others talking about how they’d figured out the pattern he admitted he didn’t think they had; he rise above not only the human predisposition to form superstitions but also our tendency to go along with what everyone else is saying.  Perhaps he has a strong sense of being in control of his life along with a healthy amount of self esteem?

Anyway, if you still find yourself falling under the influence of superstitions, just remember: it’s bad luck to be superstitious!

China performs space walk, rips off Star Trek

The logo of the China National Space Administration looks strangely familiar

The logo of the China National Space Administration looks strangely familiar

Congratulations to the People’s Republic of China, which has launched their third crewed mission to space and Zhai Zhigang, age 41, has successfully performed his nation’s first space walk. The spacecraft, the Shenzhou 7, has a crew of three astronauts—or taikonauts, as the Chinese call them (cf. cosmonaut). Besides China, only the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have launched people into space.

China hopes to establish a space station by 2020 and also has plans to land people on the Moon and, eventually, Mars. They made the news last year when they shot down an old satellite in a test of their military abilities; this was largely seen as a provocative act and a possible threat to the United States, which maintains considerable assets in space for both communication, intelligence, and scientific purposes.

I am also struck, however, by the unoriginality of the China National Space Administration logo. Just look at it. Doesn’t it remind you of something? If you’re a fan of Star Trek, I’ll bet that it does. Compare:

One possible origin of the CNSA logo

One possible origin of the CNSA logo

Regardless of where the logo came from, Godspeed to the three taikonauts, Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng.

Something outside observable universe pulling galaxies

Cosmologists have discovered that 700 clusters of galaxies are being pulled by a massive gravity source that is outside the observable universe.

Since the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old we can see no more than about 13.7 billion light years in any direction.  However, the entirety of the universe is larger—potentially unimaginably larger—than that due to an early expansionary phase in the universe in which space itself expanded at an incredible rate.  The mass that is pulling on those galaxy clusters, each of which is made up of many galaxies, lies beyond our event horizon, outside the observable universe.

Some of the researchers hypothesize that the mega mass in question is the result of an area of the universe that did not undergo as extensive a period of hyper inflation, leading to a more dense area of space.

In these regions, space-time might be very different, and likely doesn’t contain stars and galaxies (which only formed because of the particular density pattern of mass in our bubble).

It could include giant, massive structures much larger than anything in our own observable universe. These structures are what researchers suspect are tugging on the galaxy clusters, causing the dark flow.

“The structures responsible for this motion have been pushed so far away by inflation, I would guesstimate they may be hundreds of billions of light years away, that we cannot see even with the deepest telescopes because the light emitted there could not have reached us in the age of the universe,” Kashlinsky said in a telephone interview. “Most likely to create such a coherent flow they would have to be some very strange structures, maybe some warped space time. But this is just pure speculation.”

Needless to say, scientists are very surprised at this unexpected finding.

Political views may have innate tendencies

Social scientists at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln have noted a correlation between the positions a person adopts on certain political issues and how he or she responds to frightening stimuli. They determined the later by measuring the subjects’ galvanic skin response (sweating) when viewing distressing images and also be observing their response to a sudden, loud noise. People who were more prone to being startled were more likely to adopt conservative positions on “hot button” social issues, like same-sex marriage, gun control, abortion, and the Iraq war.

The finding suggests that people who are particularly sensitive to signals of visual or auditory threats also tend to adopt a more defensive stance on political issues, such as immigration, gun control, defense spending and patriotism. People who are less sensitive to potential threats, by contrast, seem predisposed to hold more liberal positions on those issues.

[R]esearchers stressed that physiology is only one factor in how people form their political views — and far from the most important factor. Startle responses, moreover, cannot be used to predict the political views of any one individual — there are many liberals who startle easily and many conservatives who do not. What the study did find is that, across groups of people, there seems to be an association between sensitivity to physical threats and sensitivity to threats affecting social groups and social order.

Researchers also stress that this cannot be used to judge any individual’s political beliefs. “We are not saying if you sneak up on someone and say ‘Boo!’ and see how hard they blink, that tells you what their political beliefs are,” said John Hibbing, one of the involved political scientists.

We all like to think we’re completely objective and not influenced by external factors, only by the merits of the issues. However, it’s likely that we are all manipulated by outside forces and innate tendencies far more than we’d like to admit. Well, other people, at any rate—surely not the author or readers of this blog! The study was published in the journal Science.

Monday Miscellany: oceans, stars, and Gordon Brown

Here are some of the news stories that have caught my attention in the past week. If you find any of them interesting, please comment!

After a century of study, we're still finding new creatures everywhere we look in the ocean

We barely know what lives here. And don't build your house to close to this thing if you live in Texas.

The ongoing Census of Marine Life, an international effort to catalog all life in the oceans, has announced the discovery of hundreds of previously unknown species. They were found on various coral reefs and join thousands of other new species that the Census has discovered. Literally every where they look in the oceans, no matter how well previously explored, scientists are finding new species. The survey is expected to be completed circa 2010.

Speaking of the oceans and seas, hundreds of people on the Texas coast may soon lose their homes on account of Hurricane Ike and a 1959 state law that makes all coastal land between the low tide mark and the high tide mark public property and illegal to build upon. The hurricane has eroded many beaches severely, so many homes that were previously back from the water are now within that zone. Owners whose property is condemned by the state would probably get nothing in return, and it may take up to a year in some areas for the state to determine if the homes are indeed on public property now (it’ll take a while to see how the tides will act throughout the year). The law was last widely used in 1983 after Hurricane Alicia. I don’t think we should feel too bad for these people. “Every one of them was warned of that in their earnest money contract, in the deed they received, in the title policy they bought. … And whether you like it or not, neither the Constitution of the United States nor the state of Texas nor any law permits you to have a structure on state-owned property that’s subject to the flow of the tide.” These folks knew the risks and decided to take their chances. Unfortunately, they’ve lost their gamble.

If you've bought a Harry Potter book, this guy's party may have some of your money!

If you've bought a Harry Potter book, this guy's party may have some of your money!

On the other side of the pond, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling has donated £1milllion (about $1.8 million) to the Labour Party, saying “I believe that poor and vulnerable families will fare much better under the Labour Party than they would under a Cameron-led Conservative Party.” This is the first time she has donated to the party and some cynics speculate that she is angling for a spot on the British honours list. Dame Rowling, perhaps? The Labour Party can probably use the money; they trail the Conservative Party in polls by about 12 points, though this is down from a 21 point defecit last month. Perhaps Gordon Brown’s declaration that he “wants to do better” as Prime Minister has helped his party out some? He doesn’t need to call elections until five years after the last ones, in May 2005, but they’re typically held a year before the parliament’s term expires unless the party in power is doing very poorly.

In American election news, despite none of the presidential debates having been held yet, millions of people can already cast their ballots in this years contests. In all, 36 of the 50 states have some form of early voting, though details vary by jurisdiction. In Virginia, considered an important swing state in the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain, citizens can already vote right now. In all, up to one third of voters are expected to take advantage of early voting or absentee ballots. Hopefully few of those voters get buyers remorse between now and election day. Of course, half the electorate gets buyers remorse after the election, so they’re really just doing that ahead of us too. (Note that I’m not posting a picture of Virginia’s state flag on account of it sucks really bad.)

Dark matter probably helped form these galaxies, which probably contain some super-massive stars

Dark matter probably helped form these galaxies, which probably contain some super-massive stars

Somewhat farther away, astronomers have identified the most massive star ever found in our galaxy. The previous record holder was about 83 times the mass of the Sun; this beast is 115 times the mass of our favorite star, and it happens to be orbited by the next most massive star ever discovered, which weighs in at 89 solar masses. The astronomers’ calculations have a margin of error of +/- 30 and 15 solar masses, respectively, for the two newly studied stars. Theoretically, the maximum size a star could possibly be is 150 solar masses. The larger a star is, the more quickly it burns out.

Some other astronomers have discovered a new galaxy, Segue 1, which despite orbiting the Milky Way was not previously studied on account of being only 1/1,000,000,000th as bright as our own galaxy. However, Segue 1’s gravity is about 1000 times greater than would be predicted based on it’s luminosity alone, indicating that it is chock full of way more dark matter than would be expected. Very little is known about dark matter, and there are still a few scientists who are skeptical that it exists, but the evidence is very strong. Most cosmologists think that dark matter plays an important role in the formation of galaxies, meaning we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t. It is thought that there is approximately six times as much dark matter as normal matter in the universe, but that it only makes up about 23% of the universe, with almost all the rest being even more mysterious dark energy, which drives the expansion of the universe. In other words, we don’t know what 96% of the universe is. We’ll not run out of things to learn any time soon!

I hope this helps get your week off to an interesting start. Have a good one.

Problems at the LHC

A super magnet thingy like this is having liquid helium type problems.  Or something.

A super magnet thingy like this is having liquid helium type problems. Or something.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experienced it’s first technical problem less than a day after becoming operational when a transformer failed. “This is arguably the largest machine built by humankind, is incredibly complex, and involves components of varying ages and origins, so I’m not at all surprised to hear of some glitches,” said Steve Giddings, a physics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

And there are glitches–plural. Scientists have now detected a helium leak in the Collider’s cooling system. The liquid helium is used to keep the machine’s 1600+ superconducting magnets at just 1.9 degrees kelvin. To effect repairs, the components in question will first need to warm up again and, once the fix is made, they’ll need to be cooled down again before the LHC can be brought back online. This will take approximately two months.

So, maybe that’s why we’re all still here. But if you want to find out if the Large Hadron Collider has destroyed the world yet, a helpful webisite has been set up that will tell you: Check it out to see if you’re still here.

Hopefully the collider is fixed soon so we can find out why matter has mass, if there are more than three spacial dimensions, and all sorts of other cool stuff.

Protecting fisheries

The Economist has an interesting story about privatising fisheries. Or, as we Americans would write, privatizing them. This is an important issue, since a 2006 study indicated that all of the world’s fisheries could collapse by 2048 if current trends continue. Preventing overfishing is extremely important, but without any regulation fishermen have an incentive to simply grab as much as they can as quickly as they can, leading to the tragedy of the commons.

The article in question describes a system currently in use in 121 of the worlds approximately 10,000 fisheries that allocates how much a company can catch through use of Individual Transferable Quotas, which, as the name implies, can be bought and sold. ITQs can be held long term, so companies have a strong incentive to maintain the fishery in which they have a large stake. Research into those areas where ITQs are used indicates that they can halt, and even reverse, the collapse of fisheries, on which much of humanity depends for food and livelihood. Promisingly, fishermen grasp the usefulness and value of this system to themselves and their own long-term prospects. Market forces and intelligent planning can lead to a situation that’s better for consumers, workers, business, and the environment without heavy-handed government regulation.

The Economist warns against government micromanaging the system, which would eliminate many of the free market benefits, leading to a less efficient system, and which would be prone to undue lobbying influences.

Church of England apologizes to Charles Darwin

The Rev. Malcolm Brown, the head of the Church of England’s public affairs department, has said that the Church owes Charles Darwin an apology, “for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still.” He said that in a larger essay, “Good religion needs good science,” which itself if part of an excellent series of articles and essays, found at here, on Darwin that the Church of England is releasing in advance of 2009, which is both the bicentennial of the scientist’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the first publication of On the Origin of Species.

Charles Darwin, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle

Charles Darwin in the late 1830s, shortly after returning from the Beagle's historic voyage

They compare hostility to Darwin and evolution to the opposition that Galileo faced for saying the Earth moved around the Sun. Pope John Paul II officially apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in putting Galileo on trial and stifling his ideas. Some have criticized the apology, calling it “ludicrous” or “pointless,” the latter being the characterization of Darwin’s great-great-grandson.

I think it is appropriate to admit fault where it is real, but care should be taken to not distort the history of the church’s reaction to the theory of evolution which is certainly not the story of universal rejection. Indeed, the publication of The Origin of Species in North America was organized by Darwin’s confidante, Asa Gray, professor of natural history at Harvard and a committed Christian. (Gray later wrote a book titled Darwiniana.) The British historian James Moore writes that “with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution”, and the American sociologist George Marsden reports that “…with the exception of Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s.” And it wasn’t just scientists among Christians who quickly embraced evolution. One Anglican clergyman wrote to Darwin suggesting that evolution was actually a “loftier” conception of God than the old-fashioned idea of God creating humans the easy way, by just molding them out of dust. In other words, there is grandeur in this view of life.

I do very highly recommend the articles published by the Church of England on Darwin and his life, though I have only begun to skim through them myself. They point out that Darwin was raised and always surrounded by Anglicans and even studied briefly for the priesthood as a young man (some Islamic Creationists take this to be proof that evolution is a Christian plot to undermine the morals of good Moslems). His journey away from Christian faith into what he later said was best characterized as agnosticism, not atheism, had nothing to do with his scientific discoveries; it was largely the result of his daughter’s death, which he found difficult to square with the existence of a loving, all-powerful God.

Darwin knew that his research and theories would prove controversial and expected the attacks that he received. However, his fears that his family and friends would reject him were happily unfounded. When he died in 1882, he became one of only five non-royals to be given a state funeral in the 19th century and was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton.

Comments are welcome. And you can check out those aforementioned articles here:

McCain and Obama on science

Back during the primary season Science Debate 2008 originally wanted to get all the candidates from both parties on the same stage to debate their respective views, approaches, and policies towards science-related topics.  That didn’t happen.  But what is about as good as could be hoped for is that both Barack Obama and John McCain have now submitted answers to questions they were given in a range of categories that together cover the spectrum of issues that face us and that require a scientific approach.

The 14 categories are: innovation, climate change, energy, education, national security, pandemics and biosecurity, genetics research, stem cells, ocean health, water, space, science integrity, research, and health.

The candidates’ written responses can be seen and compared side-by-side here.  Highly recommended, even for those who have already made a decision about who to support.


Here are a number of quick new items that I have found interesting; hopefully readers will think likewise about at least some of the following.

Time‘s Michael Kinsley has a good article on “Sarah Palin’s Alaskanomics” that challenges how much experience she has with fiscal conservatism, even besides her early support for the “bridge to nowhere.”  The economy of the state has more to do with Alaska’s natural resources than with Governor Palin, but the details are nonetheless interesting. 

Of the 50 states, Alaska ranks No. 1 in taxes per resident and No. 1 in spending per resident. Its tax burden per resident is 2.5 times the national average; its spending, more than double. The trick is that Alaska‘s government spends money on its own citizens and taxes the rest of us to pay for it. Although Palin, like McCain, talks about liberating ourselves from dependence on foreign oil, there is no evidence that being dependent on Alaskan oil would be any more pleasant to the pocketbook.

Alaska is, in essence, an adjunct member of OPEC. It has four different taxes on oil, which produce more than 89% of the state’s unrestricted revenue.

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch predicts that the “Election Will Hinge on Abortion Issue.”  He says that “the outcome of the presidential election will depend not on the economy, not on the Iraq war, not on the price of gasoline or the issue of national health insurance, but on the issue of the right to abortion.”  He credits McCain’s selection of Palin for making the abortion issue prominent in the race and says she’ll drive evangelicals to the polls just as Obama will drive more minorities, possibly leading to a high turnout election.  Koch will announce his presidential endorsement next week.

To our north, Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has dissolved his country’s Parliament.  To those not familiar with the terminology of parliamentary government, this simply means that he has called for new elections, which will be held October 14th.  Harper’s Conservative party has 127 seats, a plurality, in the House of Commons.  He hopes to gain an outright majority to form a more stable government without having to rely on any opposition parties to pass legislation. Some recent polls say Conservatives may win as many as 168 seats in the 308-member House of Commons, but Harper been downplaying the chances of this, publicly predicting another plurality government.

In other prime ministerial news, Japan’s PM, Yasuo Fukuda, has resigned.  This article has some interesting observations on how two decades of mostly weak and ineffective Prime Ministers have affected Japan’s position and relationship and role with their region and with the United States.  Not really touched on in the article is Japan’s need for some fundamental and painful economic reforms, which probably won’t happen without an executive with some clout. The upcoming leadership election likely won’t produce such an executive.

One of my favorite columnists, Gregg Easterbrook,  has a lengthy item (1356 words) on vehicle fuel efficiency and horsepower in the latest entryto his only partly football-related column, Tuesday Morning Quarterback.  Easterbrook writes that “Less horsepower would mean better fuel efficiency, diminished petroleum imports and lower carbon emissions … [and] would reduce highway deaths” by diminishing speeding and road rage.  He argues for government regulation, writing that:

Courts consistently rule that vehicles using public roads may be regulated for public purposes, such as safety and energy efficiency. NASCAR races occur on private property — there, horsepower is nobody’s business. On public roads, horsepower is very much everybody’s business. You’d be laughed at if you asserted a “right” to drive a locomotive down the freeway. Where is it written we have the “right” to operate an overpowered car that wastes oil and pollutes the sky?

In less important news, KFC is moving Colonel Sanders’s secret recipe.  Apparently, KFC literally has a piece of yellow notebook paper on which Sanders himself hand wrote the secret recipe; the paper is kept in a vault and will be moved while it’s security arrangements are enhanced.  Only two company executives have access to the whole recipe at any one time; people in their supply chain have access only to a small portion thereof.

In other fast food news, 54-year old Dan Gorske has eaten 23,000 Big Macs since 1972.  That works out to about 640 Big Macs per year, or about 1.75 Big Macs per day.  That can’t be good for you.  Gorske credits this feat to his obsessive-compulsive disorder, which also leads him to save every McDonald’s receipt.  The only day he hasn’t eaten a Big Mac was the day his mother died and he says that eating a Big Mac is the highlight of his day. No word on whether he’s considered the possibility that he likes Big Macs perhaps a bit too much.

In slightly more important news, Physicist Stephen Hawking predicts that the Large Hadron Collider, which will come online Wednesday, will not destroy the world.  He puts the chance of it creating microscopic black holes (which would not be dangerous) at less than 1%, but says “I don’t think there is any doubt I would get a Nobel Prize, if they showed the properties I predict.”  Hawking’s main prediction is that microscopic black holes would quickly “evaporate” due to so-called Hawking Radiation produced by quantum effects.  The physicist also doubts that the LHC will produce evidence of the Higgs bosun, which he doubts exists; he has put his money where his voice synthesizer is by making one of his well-known bets: he’ll lose $100 to Michigan University’s Gordy Kane if the Higgs exists.